Thus wrote Gary Gygax in the first paragraph of his introduction to Men & Magic (OD&D, volume 1), and every Dungeons & Dragons rule set since have included some similar words regarding the importance of imagination to the playing of the game.
Just what is imagination? The dictionary definition ranges from "the formation of a mental image or concept of that which is not real or present" (AHD) to "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality" (MWD) to simply "the ability to create pictures in your mind; the part of the mind that does that" (OED). Conceptualizing ideas...especially visual ideas (images, pictures)...would seem to be the main purpose/use of one's imagination, and we can thus infer that it is this ability (to mentally conceptualize images) that is so important to the D&D hobby.
It's important to a LOT of things (duh) but it is of utmost importance to a tabletop game that utilizes no board, and that requires participants to create mental images in their heads of the action occurring with little more than a handful of dice, textual notes, and narrated description to help. Players that fail to possess exceptional imagination will have a damnably hard time playing D&D, especially if the Dungeon Master, too, lacks the faculty to visualize and/or effectively describe their vision. Fortunately, imagination as a mental faculty can be exercised, becoming stronger with training and effort.
What might not be readily apparent, however, is the importance of external stimulus to imagination. Imagination, as a process, involves arranging the relationship of ideas and images to form a mental construct, but these ideas/images/relationships are not generated from nothing, nor is their significance/meaning. Instead these things come from our memories, both long- and short-term, and while memories can be created from our own imagination, their original impetus must necessarily derive from outside ourselves, from something learned.
FOR EXAMPLE: to a person unfamiliar with the term "minotaur," no mental image can be constructed with the simple utterance of the word. However, if I explained that a minotaur has the body of a man and the head of a bull, the person could use imagination to construct an image in their mind...provided they have learned (i.e. have memories) of both "a man" and "the head of a bull." Lacking one or both of these terms, the imagination will fail to produce a concept of a minotaur, unless more elementary descriptions are used.
|For your memory.|
All of which is preamble to declare the immense importance of artwork to the role-playing game. We've all heard the old saw "a picture is worth a thousand words" but in the sphere of fantasy RPGs, a picture's value may be even more valuable. Those visual illustrations found in the rule books work to imprint memories in the minds of the reader...memories that will be used in the process of imagination to form and arrange concepts and mental images, providing meaning and significance that will become the foundational building blocks needed in a game that often times emulates situations not found in our "normal reality." What is our mental image of an orc or goblin or dragon? How about a lucerne hammer or studded leather armor? From where do we draw our memory of a magic-user? Is it a man in cape pulling a rabbit out of a top hat?
Consider for a moment how important it is for an RPG like Dungeons & Dragons to provide visual images as "seeds" for the imagination; consider what you, dear reader, would be left with for your imagination withOUT the illustrations provided in countless fantasy gaming products. For me, I know that as a child I was exposed to many fantasy images prior to my first encounter with D&D...it was my love of all things fairy tale and fantastical that first drew me to a game involving the same.
[I would guess that the bulk of my gaming is informed by primordial memories of Ray Harryhausen "Sinbad" films, with a huge helping of Rankin-Bass Hobbit on the side]
[younger gamers would probably draw their mental images of fantasy from Jackson's Lord of the Rings films (can you believe those things are 20 years old?!) ...or perhaps Harry Potter. *sigh*]
Anyway, once you've considered how important artwork is for a fantasy role-playing game, and how integral such artwork is to the formulation of a foundation for imagining the actual (in-game) action that occurs during play, I'd invite you to reflect on just what that artwork illustrates in the instructional, core texts of "the world's most popular role-playing game," and how said artwork differs across editions of the games. And then consider how those differences in artwork might influence differences in play.
I'll be writing about that in my next post.